At the start of a new life, a little help can go far

3 years 3 months ago

For refugees arriving in a new country to begin a new life, the experience can be overwhelming. IOM helps by preparing the individuals with cultural information and helpful tips about the society. Migrant trainer Dima Salih recounts her experience from a training she organised for Iceland-bound refugees in Lebanon.

“Oh my god they are so cute!” a woman cheered. A group of children entered our training session with little crowns made from Icelandic flags. It was the last day of a pre-departure orientation for a group of refugees who were about to start a new life in Iceland.

For three days, we had gone through details about the Icelandic culture and society in detail. All this was meant to help the people have an easier time with the new country, its customs and completely new surroundings.

The giggling group in front of me, I thought to myself “this is the future of Iceland”. And the future looked sunny.

It was a long way from our starting point.

Jobs, school runs and cold weather

If buildings could talk, the houses of Lebanon would have endless stories to tell. The country has witnessed international and internal conflict and hosts a diverse population with large groups of refugees from Palestinians to Iraqis and Syrians.

I had arrived for work.

As a migrant trainer, I travel to different countries preparing refugees for resettlement in Iceland and Finland. My training module is called “Pre-Departure Orientation” (PDO).

Stepping into the training hall, I met many confused looks. People were sitting silently, trying to keep their kids busy and relaxed. I greeted them with a smile and tried to keep my voice cheerful.

I started the training by congratulating everyone for being accepted for resettlement in Iceland. I introduced myself and the other representatives from Iceland and explained more about the purpose of the training. As the programme was heavily loaded with important information, the baby sitters took the children to a room where they could play, draw and watch cartoons.

We started with travel preparations as I knew that many of the participants would be flying for the first time by air. We followed the session with an exercise where we discussed fears about moving to a new country. Most were nervous. Many feared that learning a new language would be difficult and that they would suffer from a cultural shock and experience social alienation, loneliness and racism.

“I would like to know more about the Syrian refugees who resettled in Iceland. How is their life nowadays? Did they get a job?”, asked one of the men.  Many of the questions raised practicalities: cold weather, transportation, school runs and jobs. Together, we learned basic language skills, practicalities like banking, local transportation and so on.

We also talked about recognizing cultural shock and surviving it and adapting culturally to a new environment.

Everyone wanted to guarantee a safe place, dignified life, freedom of religion and a good education for their children.

Learning is a two-way street

At the end of the training, the participants received certificates.

It was an intensive three days, but all worth it: by the end, most people were excited and happy to move to Iceland. Many wanted to leave as soon as possible.

Having myself moved to Finland in 2012 from Palestine, it was important to tell the participants both good and bad sides of my experience, so that their image about the new life would be realistic. Many saw me as a life saver who already had experienced resettling in a new country and knew what it would be like.

I love my job and enjoy teaching people, but I am also grateful to learn from my participants. I feel very fortunate for having the opportunity to support people taking their first steps towards a new future.


Dima Salih

The writer works as a migrant trainer at IOM Finland.

The views expressed by the authors in IOM Finland's blog are their own and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the International Organization for Migration.